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Pitt volleyball's strong schedule, conference paves tough road to tournament - The Pitt News

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Pitt volleyball’s strong schedule, conference paves tough road to tournament

By Brandon Duerr / Staff Writer

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Meeting expectations is never easy. But to do so, the Pitt women’s volleyball team will have to overcome a difficult schedule and roster turnover in its upcoming season.

The Panthers are coming off a stellar year both overall and in their second season in the ACC.The season saw the team reel off an impressive 25 wins to match up with only six losses, finishing in sole possession of fifth place in the conference at 13-5. Many onlookers thought the Panthers to be postseason snubs for the NCAA Tournament. Their last trip to the NCAA Tournament came in 2004 while still a member of the Big East Conference where Ohio University defeated them in straight sets.

This season, Pitt hopes to avoid missing out on the tournament with a litany of returning players, as well as more opportunity to impress the selection committee.

Assistant coach Craig Dyer, who is entering into his 21st season as a volleyball coach and third at Pitt, said scheduling tougher teams this season will go a long way in getting over the hump and into the tournament.

“We wanted to schedule tougher in the non-conference and we met that goal,” Dyer said.

The difficult non-conference slate begins right away for the squad, as its first matches take place in Lincoln, Nebraska for the Nebraska Invite, where it squares off against the likes of Tulsa and Nebraska. Tulsa finished the season 22-9 last year, while Nebraska advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, so both will likely be formidable opponents for Pitt.

The team will also make a trip to the Michigan Challenge, facing difficult foes in South Carolina and Michigan before beginning its tough ACC schedule.

“We’re playing solid teams, all with high RPI this season,” Dyer said. “That gives us an advantage both on the court competition-wise and in the eyes of the selection committee.”

The Panthers will have to deal with losing five players over the offseason to graduation, and will look to continue the winning and competitive culture established by third-year head coach Dan Fisher.

Senior middle hitter Amanda Orchard and senior setter Jenna Jacobson lead the Panthers. Orchard is coming off a season where ACC coaches named her a first-team All-ACC selection, while the American Volleyball Coaches Association named her an All-America honorable mention and a first-team All-Region honoree.

Orchard agreed with Dyer that the increased strength of schedule is a key factor for Pitt.

“Our RPI has made a big jump and that’s a good thing, but that just means we are going to have to work harder as a team in order to reach our goals,” Orchard said.

Jacobson, a five-foot-eight senior out of Chicago, takes point in the offense from her setter position. She posted a career-high 15 digs in a match against Louisville last season to go along with 27 assists in that game as well.

 Jacobson has an all-work, no-play mentality when it comes to the Panthers’ goals this season.

The women have been participating in players-only practices this summer to try and instill that rigorous attitude into the incoming players’ minds, and Jacobson hopes the team will be able to build a strong enough résumé that their season won’t come down to winning one contest.

“We have a lot of new girls that we hope are going to make an impact for us right away this year,” Jacobson said. “We want to teach them that work ethic and ideally have that ‘one game’ not matter when it comes to reaching our goal of making the NCAA Tournament.”

Orchard hopes her experience can rub off on a slate of younger players this season.

“I hope that I can teach the younger girls to live in the moment,” Orchard said. “It’s important to not get too far ahead of yourself and take it one play at a time, to live in the moment.”

Despite the roster turnover and difficult slate of games, the Panthers have not compromised their goals and optimism for the upcoming season.

“We want to crack that top four in the ACC and prove we are for real,” Jacobson said. “Our ultimate goal is to finish what we started and leave no doubt for the NCAA Tournament.”

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Pitt volleyball’s strong schedule, conference paves tough road to tournament